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Exclusive Interview with George Massenburg

Parametric Music with George Massenburg
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It’s always a great and an unusual experience to meet a personality who has contributed some much to the evolution of the way we work. In addition to the videos previously released on Audiofanzine, we had the extreme pleasure to meet George Massenburg during his last Parisian visit and to talk more about music production with him. An interview with a real open-minded master.

The Interview

Bootz : George, just before we start, what are you working on at the moment?

George Massenburg : I have 3 recording projects that I am working on right now. One is not really recording; it is finishing an Opera McGill production – Don Giovanni, Mozart – and I am directing and post-production supervising… Finishing up Don Giovanni which is an 8-camera hi-def shoot that we did with students with a new methodology of shooting opera : a new way of shooting opera that I think is spectacularly effective as it reveals more about opera, as it is closer and more intimate and more suited to the new generation of kids that want to see something on a small screen. That, and I am doing 2 music projects. I am doing the McGill Jazz 1 and I am doing the Stand Kitten record – cut for commercial release – which is great because the Jazz 1 has many many players which are fantastic. Just great songs, great kits, great drums, great bass, great guitar, great piano, great, great great. And then I do a new pop group called Urban Creature from Toronto, they write and produce their own records. This is a personal project to see how the new model would work. I work completely for free, participating in the record of the group and we see how that goes.

And on the other side you are still working with G Labs?

Well, I got 3 jobs. My 3 jobs really are : education, producing electronic equipment, and recording.  And kind of mix, but I am unhappy if I don’t do one of these. I want to do all 3 and they inform each other. I have to keep recording to stay current with the methodology of the studio; I listen to everything that I can get my hands on, my ears into. I hear new work being done and I want to try it outside. I am in the studio a lot.  Building equipment, right now we have two software products in process for MDW and one that is a hybrid product for GML which is the next generation of the 9000 controller, but with a DSP sidechain.  And this takes a long time to do because internally it looks to run at 384 kHz, very fast, not quick (to develop, NA).  As far as software products, we have new products out for the new Pro Tools platform for 10.2 so called AAX and both DSP and Native. It is a lot of work!

Speaking of the balance between all these projects, I’d like to go back to your early age, to the first period of your career. I’ve read that you started at the age of 15, you were working at a laboratory and at the same time at a working studio.

I had joined a recording studio at Baltimore, Maryland.  But it went back to when I was 4 years old and I used to stick my fingers and unscrew a light bulb, and “Aaaahhh!” just to experiment (Laughs). But I love music recording just from a very early age. I had the good fortune to grow up in the same area as Deane Jensen who was a pioneer in making transformers. He was a friend – a personal friend – and we did hand radio, amateur radio, and photography.  And then he bought an Ampex 602 tape recorder «Wow!», bought headphones and U67. I bought his U67, I still have the 67. Very early on I knew that I just loved recording.  There was a tremendous power recording. Ed Cherney said, “I always thought it was a miracle that music could go through this wire, that’s magic”. Fucking magic. Anyway, the idea just seemed like magic to me.  Still does.

So then, Dean Jensen was your first mentor?

He was really my first mentor.  My second mentor was Dr. Curtis Marshall and I worked for him in a laboratory to build an early computer that used a very strange storage mechanism called an Image Radarcon, a tube that would just scan in and then destructively output a number of scans.  It was used to accumulate electron info graphs sensors into an averaging reports so that a neurosurgeon could read an electrons info graph much faster. But it taught me early on electronics, and I had another mentor who would teach me electronics, and I was 15. It’s not so bad.

I’d like to go back to your concept of parametric EQ that you first introduced in 1972, if I am correct…

1971, and then I gave the AES paper in 1972. It was a combination of people who had this idea, but we got there first. Then Dan Flickinger had kind of a sweep equalizer in his console but he didn’t have a cue control; Gotham sold an equalizer made by EMT I think – the EQ1000 – and it had a notch filter, but it wasn’t continuously variable. So we took a notch filter and an early discrete op amp ‘cause chips weren’t very good, so we had to have an op amp so built our own op amp and an early equalizer. Then I had to show how it worked. I took it to the AES show and people would say : 'that’s OK but I need to click stops".  No, we are getting away from click stops, it’s much more powerful ! You can tune this exactly to the resonance of a guitar or to a snare drum it controlled. It was easier designing it than selling it. It was a whole new idea and people didn’t get it !  Especially of this idea of cue control.  For so long you complained about the cue of the SSL equalizer being too sharp. And when it was too broad because Hugh Padgham complained, then people complained that it was too broad. So it was always a good idea to make it adjustable, but people had to get used to the idea of what that sounded like. And that meant they had to listen and that has always been the problem. Getting people to listen – that’s why you do so good at this because you pay attention, you listen. Generally, it’s hard to get people to listen.

We have to listen and to hear how to make it work. Did you have to spend a lot of time explaining and educating? You started educating people about this new concept of parametric EQ?

Well, ultimately what sold it were making these records, especially Earth Wind & Fire records in 1974, 1975.  They came on so bright and big that people were saying : “What the fuck is he doing?”  Well, now I got your attention. So it really helped. Talking about music is like singing about football. You only get so far before you have to demonstrate what it is. And here is what that sounds like. That’s the key :  demonstrating.

As you said before, you quickly went freelance sound engineering, so you always balanced the two activities which was electrical design and engineering, so how did you manage to… ?

Easy. There was something I had to do in the control room and I didn’t have anything, so I’d go design something. Our compressor was like that, our 8900 was like that. Devices available for uses on vocals were nothing. The 1176, the Spectra Sonics which was dreadful, API console and that was it. And the LA2A. I knew that I liked the sensing of the LA2A. I knew that I liked the log control in the DBX. I knew I liked the speed of an 1176, but they were 3 different units, and I needed them in one unit. So the 8900 is really a DBX perfected, feed forward, with a peak section added. But I didn’t have one so I had to design it !

So you combined these 3 units in one piece?

In one idea.

Let’s talk about your studio.  I’ve read – maybe I am wrong – that you have set up a studio in Blackbird, Nashville?

Well, it’s not my studio. It started as my studio, and very soon it was clear that John McBride wanted everything. I built it. I rent it for a while, but it was better off that I just gave him, he paid me for everything I bought. He didn’t pay me for my time. But I think it was a good investment because it was a dramatic departure from studios. If you see in these videos, making music, with musicians all around you, it’s a different way of making music. Everybody can hear each other, see each other, and the room sounds great. Every place sounds the same, exactly the same anywhere in the room.  And it was unfortunate that it was in Nashville because people in Nashville are brain dead and deaf. Nashville is hopeless. Nobody is ready for any new idea ! (Laughs)

So do you have your own setup somewhere?

I now have a listening and mixing setup in my apartment in Montreal. I have quite tall ceilings and sonics boards. It is not set up as a studio, but it sounds pretty good. It is a combination of mixing and listening setup and also I hang backgrounds and I can shoot in there as well. I have lights and cameras to shoot in there. We do interviews, we don’t do music, but we do talking.  But I can mix in there very well, I have monitors and a huge system.

So it’s a flexible setup?


I like to talk a little bit about the equipment that you like to use.

Well the easiest thing is to say that I hate everything ! (Laughs) Even my own stuff. I wouldn’t be inspired to improve it if I liked it too much. So I have problems with everything.  I have problems with every microphone out there, every mic pre, everything. I don’t love anything.  But it challenges me to listen beyond the equipment, and try to hear.  Because what I love is transparency to the performance. I want to hear all of the performance. Anything that gets in the way of transparency, I fight and try to improve.

Well, I won’t ask you then if you prefer analog consoles or digital consoles?

I’d like to actually answer that because I prefer analog processing.  Obviously we are going to use analog mic pres.  Except for this Neumann Solution D, which I think is quite good. The KM D, it’s a terrific microphone. I like analog processing, I use analog limiters as well as analog EQs, I use my own and some other limiters. I like mixing in the digital domain with a small console. First, because it is very flexible and when necessary I can automate what I need.  And when not necessary, to feel a mix by putting my hands on the controller and mixing by heart, by guts, not just painting lines on a screen.  But I think that is more of an analog methodology on a digital console.

It’s like an old school way of working with improvements by today’s equipment.

Right, right.  And it’s that thing that we learned to love about the DAW, where you can make a production just for that one mistake that would otherwise ruin a take, fix that one mistake. Maybe it’s a bad vocal, a word, or a bad trumpet. This jazz thing I got a bunch of trumpet things, and these guys they play these high notes, and not all correct. But we can fix it, it’s a good performance just fucked up enough. Just enough mistakes to make an honest jazz !  And I think that’s the great strength of the DAW, but also of mixing.  If I mix and I miss one thing, I have the choice of fixing that one thing.  I don’t have to fix it, but I have that choice or the artist has the choice. It’s pretty powerful.

So you use the digital domain for all the things you can improve?

If it needs to be improved but at least I can experiment.  But the idea with a live mix is still important. Where we differ from my colleagues in the industry is that we try to get our students to hear a live mix to do a whole mix. Al Schmitt can do a whole mix live.  Bill Schnee is a master of dancing on the console. You want people to dance on the console again to do a real mix, with energy and power. Feeling.

This is something that I have seen in your videos when you are with other musicians or when you are discussing recording or your methods, the energy, the feelings, the relations to the artists, and the relation to the energy of the music and what you feel.  What you feel as a human being, I think is really important.

Well it starts with the musician who is listening not only to himself but also to a whole mix. In my recordings we really want to get musicians to listen to everything, to hear themselves as part of everything. And I want them to know that I am listening to them, everything they do. So I have this eye contact if I hear something that isn’t very good… : “Humm, what are you kidding?”  Or a smile or something that works with the performance so that I don’t have to wait until playback to give them visual feedback. So that’s a good reason to have something right in the studio. Quick feedback.

So you quickly establish a sense of trust among everybody.

Listening. I am listening to what you are doing, make no mistake, I am not going to replace by Pro Tools. I am either going to like what you do now or not.

So let’s continue with the production side.  What are some of the first things you do when you start recording a band?  Do you go into the live room and take notes?

Long before that, we sit and we talk about the project with the band. We go to where the band plays.  If they play at a club I go to hear them at a club.  We talk about songs. If the songs aren’t there, we start working on that first thing. We talk about what they like, what artists do they like, what they sound like, who do they see themselves as. What their dream is in 5 years… Sometimes it doesn’t go any further.  Sometimes, we realize that we are not right for each other, I am too demanding, I want to know too much.  They just want to get in and party and I want to make a record, a good record.  But it starts with seeing how the band works as a band or how an artist works with other musicians, and getting a sense of how to craft a record.  And then maybe we will do not a full band but just a singer with a guitar player or two, just to see how that works. Maybe a percussionist, but intimate, very close together to see how we can develop a feeling between the artist and the supporting instruments. Generally it starts like that.

We have seen lots of things about your mic placements, the microphones that you use. Is there something that you always do and something that you never do in a studio?

This is tough because there is always something that I do and there is never something that I never do.  I always do something and never avoid something.  As Bruce Swedien says : “The only rule is there are no rules”.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the mixing stage?  How do you approach that?

Overtime I start mixing with the very first track. That’s a mix, that is automated, it is saved in the DAW.  Because the artist is going to take that mix home, and they are going to listen to that mix.  And my experience is that often that very first mix from the session is the one that you should learn to follow and you’re not going to change it too much. So I’ll start actually mixing, reaching for licks or balancing the vocal, right when we are tracking. Mix and record the automation right when we are tracking. As the mix grows and moves along I save everything. I save the audio tracks, I save the automation. So if an artist says : ‘You know I love the mix that you did right after we put the lead guitar on’, I find that mix and ‘Oh I did this differently’.  And then I might change my thinking about the latest mix.  But it is a long arch and I found it less good to sit down and to try to mix a song. We mixed Toto in 4 days. 4 fucking days to make a mix. It seems too long. I rather have a break in between to get a perspective. I would mix for a while, then I have some ideas, then I would listen to it.  Listen to it in the car, on the back of the Vespa !

So as you record you mix along at the same time. Do you have some kind of a structure or working methods for the mixing afterwards?

I got about 6 different approaches if I need to start a mix from scratch.  One way is to just develop a mix all along.  Another way is to start from scratch. I got maybe 3 different ways for starting from scratch, of what to bring up and how to bring things up. One is, I am listening to a reference or a demo of the song.  Prince Charles Alexander at Berklee showed me this – he used to be Puff Daddy’s engineer/producer : bring up all faders until the loudest thing on the demo is the same thing as the loudest thing on the mix. So you bring it up to –30, –25, –20, and then you refine the whole mix against the demo.

Another way is to bring up the lead vocal and the most important supporting instrument like piano or acoustic guitar, electric guitar or whatever. You start with that and then you fill in the cracks underneath it.  Another way, and the way I will do jazz, is full rhythm section, a little bit of a balance, full saxes, a little bit of a balance, trumpets, a little bit of a balance and then on the sub-masters the 3 : saxes, trumpets balance them on the sub-masters because jazz is a little different thing. You need internal balances in the sections.  And then there is always the classic :  bring up the drums, make them as loud as you can. Chris does that : “Turn up the kick, make that as loud as fucking possible !”  Ok turn up the snare. Give me the 1176 number two, make that as loud as fucking possible. Sorry Chris. I can do that, I don’t like to do that. That’s a way different approach.

What’s your mix bus processing chain?

Almost always I’ll have everything available when I start mixing.  So I’ll have all my effects, reverb, delay, long delay, short delay… I use PCM96 a lot, I use UAD250, the UAD plates. I use a lot of Altiverb 7, just ready to go. 4,5, 6 subs : drums sub, bass, guitar, piano sub and then whatever lead vocal, background vocal, maybe orchestra, or in a case of a big band, saxes, trumpets, drums, maybe percussion. Lots of subs; I can go in and do the subs separate from VCA . And eventually I get down to a mix that is all on my little 8 channel mixer so I can have everything sitting right there and I can do an overall mix. 

But before that, on the bus, very early on I do as soon as I can a pre-master. So if I am trying to match a template or a sample or an example sound, I get close to it, because that’s been mastered, that’s been crushed a little bit. So I will have one of my limiters, I’ll have a two limiter, I like Massey 2007, as a final crunch. I don’t like L3s, I don’t like anything that is multi-band, I usually do not use multi-band. But I can’t say never, cause I used the C4 on occasion. I never use a vocal rider. There you go, there is a never ! (Laughs)  I will never use a Waves Vocal Rider, I’d rather mix by hand. So very early on I have a pre-master that bring up the level of what I am working on so that it matches to some degree – timberly and dynamically – to some degree the sample, the example, the template of the outside CD.  Cause why I go crazy on a whole bunch of individual EQs when it is one mastering EQ that you got to turn up?  But that’s my approach. That’s the layout and then I’ll have different ways of approaching it.

So you are always trying to match something that you have…

No!  Occasionally when I am allowed to mix, I am there to make a mix for an artist, and they have an idea of what they want. But if they don’t, I am allowed to make my mix, then I only have to match the picture in my head and then I can start from scratch.

Regarding mixing versions, how many do you do?

MWell, like I said, if I am doing tracking and mixing then I have versions from all along from the very first one that everybody said they liked.  So I have that, and maybe it has an instrument that we left out and we get down the road and say : ‘We shouldn’t have left that out, let’s go back and bring it in’, or a dynamic that you missed. So a lot of versions.  At the end of the session, I have one version, not DB down DB up crap, that’s bullshit ! You have one record.  You have different ways of listening to it, different ways of adjusting for it, different ways of going in and making a timberal adjustment but I don’t have half DB up, DB up, DB half, two DB on a vocal, fuck that. Nor do I do stems. If they ask for stems, I am out, I don’t mind quitting a record cause I am not going to be useful. I’m out, I’m done.

But I will deliver two versions.  I’ll deliver the version that the artist likes, that the artist says : “That’s a great mix, I like that. Keep that.”  Something that has dynamic control and EQ. When I print the mix for mastering I take all the dynamic stuff off and just leave the EQ because I want to let the mastering engineer do the best that he or she can do to make just the right dynamic adjustment. But they got to make it as good as the one that the artist has just heard. So the mastering engineer will get two versions. The version the artist likes – OK, beat this or use it. They can beat it with the unaffected master.  I deliver two mixes, not 10 or 20.

I’d like to talk a little about the artists that you have been working with.  From Earth Wind and Fire, Newman, Weather Report, Toto, there’s a certain genre but can you see a common factor between all these artists?  In the energy, the songwriting, the personalities?

The common thing that I look for is an artist that isn’t absolutely committed to making the same thing that they did last time.  I’m looking for an artist that wants to do something new. I want to build something new.  I don’t want to do the same old thing. The end of my time with Earth Wind and Fire was I just couldn’t sit in the studio anymore. I’ve heard it for 20 odd records, I couldn’t do it again, I knew I couldn’t do it; so I withdrew and they never made another great record. And I like that. They stopped reinventing themselves and stopped coming up with new stuff.  Weather Report… I did a live record with Jaco, Joe Zawinul, Alex Acuna and Dom Um Romao and that was great. They were great but they were crazy ! 

Well you have to be crazy sometimes… !

This is where I get into trouble because I think most musicians are in some way deeply neurotic.  I don’t want to say deeply flawed, but trying to find some kind of gratification in the public sphere, the adoration of the public to fill a need that is, you know, they are all a little nuts…  Except for James Taylor. James Taylor has come through it all. James Taylor is one of the coolest people ever.  He can talk to anybody.  He is inquisitive, he listens. There are some others that are very cool. There are some very good exceptions.

I’d like to talk about education and your role at McGill University and the evolution that you see today, business wise, and job wise for the students who want to become engineers.

First and foremost there is a group of my colleagues and I who have been in the business and love the business. We see the evolution of the modern recording business is sorely in need of being reminded what music is, and not told. I don’t want to tell anybody how to make music but you know, maybe if we use live drums this way…here’s the advantage, here is the power, here is the story that comes from that.  Here is how you make it work with what your dream is of your own music. That’s education. I am not going to change anybody’s mind by going and making another record. 

But by teaching students, who are themselves, the future teachers I have a multiplier effect.  I am more able to spread some good news and good techniques and clear thinking about what recording can be and also what recording isn’t. What each of these area’s powers is : engineering has strengths, music production has strengths, helping artists with their performers has strengths.  Most important thing is not to fix one area with another’s tools. I can’t fix a song with EQ. You have to sit down with the artist and the band and everybody can play together, can hear each other, and you work out the right tempo and phrasing.  Make sure that the drummer isn’t speeding up so that the singer doesn’t have room to sing the lyrics. It’s very clear what you listen for, but until you have been informed that now is the time to make a decision on the tempo, it is very hard to change later.  Until you do that you don’t realize that you have that power to tell a drummer :  “Just cool it!”.  It’s OK.  It’s the right time to advise a drummer to get him to listen.  Get him to listen to all that shit he is playing on the high end : “Wait a second, if you play that I can’t hear the detail of the lead vocal. This is a very subtle song, can you hear that?  So cool it.”

So to have that moment with students when you show them how they can be effective in a studio, that’s really important.  And I don’t think this is what a student expects.  Most students expect : ‘Well, show me what box to use’, ‘What plugin should I use on this?’  More often than not, as we know from Al Schmitt, it’s more about listening.  So we teach critical listening.  We teach how to listen when you are in your head, heart and your guts, how to listen to details, how details can integrate, what you have to work on, how to prioritize your work. As a producer it is your job to keep track of the agenda, not to tell somebody how to sing. Unfortunately, that also means to keep track of the lunch order, but that’s very important, the lunch order ! (Laughs)  Maybe the most important thing ! These are skill that you would learn in the old days by being in an apprentice in a studio and see how things go. It’s not about what you say but about what you don’t say.  So that’s where education comes in, and if they want to know about electronics we can teach them about electronics – why things sound the way they sound.  It’s not the front panel mentality, it’s not black magic, there are reasons why each of these boxes sounds the way they sound. We can teach that.  

Now we are teaching video – how to handle camera, how to shoot, camera angles, lighting, position on the stage, post-production, pre-production, editing, final cut pro, colorizing. Now we teach that. We think that the future is high quality video of high quality music performance, not music video, not these weird choreographed videos, some of them – Peter Gabriel did a great job.  More often than not we want to see a performance, what motivates a performance, we want to see a real artist, playing real music, not lip synching.  We want to see where that comes from, to see into the performance, to see the interaction between the musicians and the artist. This John Mayer video is very good for that, cause Steve Jordan, you can just see him trying to hold the tempo, and Pino Palladino watching… It’s great!

The Bernard Pivot

What is your favorite memory of producing an album?

There are so many it is hard to pick one out.  My favorite memory is always the Thrill.  You know you’ve got something that you’ve never heard before and no one else has ever heard before.  All you have to do is not fuck it up.  That has happened on any number of records, it happened on EWAF a couple of times, that happened with Linda Ronstadt a lot – just this is great!  Look out cause you can really fuck it up.  Don’t do that, cause you can really fuck it up.  Worst memory, I wouldn’t want to talk about that. There were a few of them too.

Which artist would you like to work with and why?

I want to work with a new emerging artist, that has ideas and is running into a technical wall. I don’t know who that is. I love the new Bon Iver record, but I can’t do that, they’ve already got a record, they got an engineer, he is terrific, but boy I would have loved to work on that. I love producing and directing opera video. I think that is great. Working with these fantastic students at McGill, great voices, great players, it’s a wide open field, so that’s my dream right now – producing and directing opera. It’s unusual for a rock and roller !

You’re engaged to produce an album for an artist you love but his requirements are: less is more. You need to pick only 5 pieces of your equipment. What will you choose and why?

That’s easy!  I would choose all GML because I know when they work and when they break, I know they are reliable, I know how every knob works.  So that’s my pre, EQ, compressor, I’ll use Prism convertors, I’ll use either Pro Tool or Pyramix. Right now I prefer Pro Tools for rock and roll, Pyramix for classical. I like ATC monitors, also like Genelec a lot. For portable when I have to go to a gig I like these little Sennheiser  (Neumann) KH120 speakers that sound pretty good.  And I’ve got a lot of microphones you don’t want to know about. A 57, I’ll take a 57 but that’s it.

Just to finish, do you have any quote or a catch phrase that drives you about music production?

Yes, there is not a question that cannot be addressed, that can’t be answered or at least discussed with critical listening. Critical listening tells you everything you need to know. You don’t need someone to tell you what to do, all you have to do is pay attention. Sometimes it helps to have someone do that, but everybody has to know that if they care, they can do it on their own.  They have to tell each other the truth. They have to tell themselves the truth.  If the truth is, I can’t get that sound with that piece of shit microphone, that’s the truth and they have to be responsible for that.  I don’t have the right mic, fix that and move on.  Critical listening, everything is answered by critical listening. That’s my favorite.  Another one is Woody Allen :“I can’t listen to that much Wagner, I keep getting the urge to invade Poland” ! (Laughs)

The Video Interview

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